In late 2013, ETI was approached by a number of our leading retail members with concerns about working practices in the Leicester garment sector in the UK’s East Midlands. They asked us to investigate allegations of worker abuse and if confirmed, to help them put things right.
Leicester apparel and textiles sector
The East Midlands is an important manufacturing hub for many UK fashion brands and retailers. Centred on Leicester, the region specialises in ‘fast fashion’. Mainly small, highly flexible companies can turn around an order from design to product and onto shop floor within 12 days.
30% - Leicester’s percentage of UK garment manufacturing.
580 - The estimated number of local manufacturers.
110 - Suppliers and factories from which ETI members source.
Why we and our members are working in Leicester
We commissioned research from the University of Leicester’s Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures, which confirmed retailers’ concerns.
Where previously there was conjecture and ad hoc revelations of exploitation, the University found evidence of serious and endemic labour rights issues.
- Significant numbers of workers paid below minimum wage levels.
- Absence of employment contracts.
- Excessive and under reported working hours.
- Health and safety violations.
- Limited enforcement of labour regulations and standards.
The reasons for this are varied. They range from criminality, local mismanagement and unauthorised subcontracting to a lack of clarity over retailers’ costings and purchasing practices.
As leading high-street brands, ETI members sourcing clothing from Leicester recognise that they set the industry standard.
They are committed to addressing and improving labour rights in their Leicester supply chains.
They also want to encourage all retailers sourcing from Leicester – and the UK as a whole – to adhere to high standards.
How we’re tackling low wages and poor employment practices
We’ve convened a working group of retailers, trade unions, NGOs and the University of Leicester to tackle the systemic issues linked to low wages and poor employment practices.
Group members are developing stronger relationships with responsible local suppliers with a view to building longer term investment. They’re also – either as individual companies or in small groups – starting to pilot a series of specific initiatives and share their experience and learning.
- A number are piloting Fast Forward. This is a collaborative initiative to build legal and ethical labour standards compliance in the supply base. It includes forensic auditing methodology using a number of non-traditional analyses and approaches. It aims to drive transparency and help prevent exploitation by concentrating on six key areas: the national living wage, right to work, employment contracts, mistreatment, tax and a safe and hygienic environment.
- Several members are to work with Leicester College on a comprehensive training programme. This will include workplace rights, the technical skills needed to work in the textile sector and if necessary, English language lessons. While the majority of the workforce are UK nationals, many in the sector are older women of Asian origin with often limited English.
- One retailer is piloting open costings so that they and their manufacturers know what costs are attached to each element of the production process, including wages.
- One brand is working with the union, Community, to benchmark standards and create tailored ethical audits to improve worker representation. They are exploring opportunities to provide active support in areas such as health and safety and worker-management communication.
Additionally, ETI is engaging with local partners including Leicester City Council, Citizens Advice Bureau, ACAS, community organisations and industry bodies such as the UK Fashion and Textiles Association.
Leicester apparels and textile working group membership
Non ETI members are welcome to engage with the programme plan as long as they are committed to change. Membership of the working group is currently reserved for ETI members only in partnership with Dr Nik Hammer of the Centre for Sustainable Work and Employment Futures.
Nigel Venes, Apparel and Textiles programme lead
From the ETI blog